03 Whither Must I WanderWhither Must I Wander
Will Liverman; Jonathan King
Odradek ODRCD389 (odradek-records.com)

Wanderlust – both literal and figurative – lies dormant in the human genetic makeup. It is often awakened, especially among artists, and takes flight into both real and imagined landscapes often with breathtaking results. From Wandrers Nachtlied, Goethe’s poetry set to song by Nikolai Medtner, to lieder from Mondnacht penned by Robert Schumann; from Songs of Travel by Ralph Vaughan Williams to King David by Herbert Howells and At the River by Aaron Copland, Whither Must I Wander captures the timeless beauty of man’s propensity for real and imagined travel.

The music is interpreted by Will Liverman, an outstanding lieder singer blessed with a warm-toned baritone. Liverman shows himself to be an artist of the first order. His performance here eschews melodrama and his interpretations are understated yet powerfully convincing. Howells’ King David is typical. Although Liverman is still young, and will surely mature, his singing already combines an authoritative vocal sound with accomplished interpretative insights into the music.

Liverman has an outstanding relationship with pianist Jonathan King. Together the two parley with the familiarity of old friends. The singer is aware of when to recede from the spotlight, making way for King to embellish melodies. The pianist, for his part, always rises to the occasion; his playing is full of adventurous handling of harmony and tone. Together with Liverman’s vivid storytelling, this makes for a profoundly dramatic and characterful performance

04 EkmelesA Howl, That Was also a Prayer
Ekmeles
New Focus Recordings FCR245 (newfocusrecordings.com)

New York-based contemporary new music vocal ensemble Ekmeles is spectacular in their first solo release. Featuring commissions by Christopher Trapani and Canadian Taylor Brook, and a third work by Erin Gee, the six singers perform these innovative 21st-century works with precision and understanding.

Brooks’ nine-part microtonal a cappella Motorman Sextet is based on David Ohle’s 1972 cult novel. The opening party-like vocal chatter sets the stage. The clear-spoken narrative by different voices features atmospheric backdrops like multi-voice unison spoken words, dynamic swells, held notes, high voice staccatos and atonal harmonic touches.

Gee sound-paints new dimensions to my favourite pastime in Three Scenes from Sleep, taken from a larger piece. No words here; just voice-created clicks, pops, rustles, held notes, rhythms, high-pitched intervals and the final closing more-song-like held-low note which musically illustrate the unconscious sleep state.

Trapani’s End Words features live voices with prerecorded vocal fragments and electronics. The three movements, based on texts by Anis Mojgani, Ciara Shuttleworth and John Ashbery respectively, are driven by tight ensemble performance. The first movement electronics add another voice to the clear ensemble articulations and swells with low drum-like thunder manipulations, squeaky electronic birds and plucked string effects. The closing third movement is unique with the opening electronic bell sounds leading to a strong electronic “duet” with the almost spoken vocals.

Director/baritone Jeffrey Gavett leads Ekmeles in an exciting futuristic musical direction.

Listen to 'A Howl, That Was also a Prayer' Now in the Listening Room

05 OgloudoglouOgloudoglou – Vocal masterpieces of the Experimental Generation 1960-1990
Sara Stowe
metier msv 28593 (divineartrecords.com)

English soprano Sara Stowe is a versatile and inventive musician with repertoire ranging from contemporary concert music to medieval song. A prize-winning harpsichordist and pianist at the start of her career, she then decided to learn 20th-century vocal music in Italy. One of her specialties is the songs of the outsider composer, Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), whose reputation leapt to international prominence only at the end of his life.

Ogloudoglou, titled after the song by the same name by Scelsi, is a skillfully curated album focused tightly on 11 art songs from 1960 to 1990 by what Stowe calls “the experimental generation.” She renders boundary-stretching songs by Italian composers Scelsi, Luciano Berio, Luigi Nono, Niccoló Castiglioni and Sylvano Bussotti, as well as one each by the Argentine-German Mauricio Kagel and Americans John Cage and Morton Feldman. And experiment they did.

Outstanding tracks for me are Nono’s cinematic, epic La Fabbrica Illuminata for voice and tape, and the more concise, though perhaps even more musically compelling, Sequenza III by Berio. The latter is beautifully rendered by Stowe – and I’ve heard Cathy Berberian, for whom it was composed, perform it live.

Breathtakingly iconoclastic, perhaps even shocking when brand new, this tough song repertoire is little programmed today, at least in Canada. Stowe thus does us a favour, presenting her recital of songs by seminal later-generation high modernists with virtuoso verve. She committedly follows their demanding performance instructions and groundbreaking aesthetics, by the end winning over those who care to listen with her exhilarating musicality.

06 Sanctuary RoadPaul Moravec – Sanctuary Road
Soloists; Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra; Kent Tritle
Naxos 8.559884 (naxosdirect.com) 

Stories of the plight of the African slave in the US have echoed in the secrecy of the Underground Railroad for hundreds of years, the best of them recounted in prose, poetry and, somewhat recently, also in film. Musical stories – sung in the style of classic and modern blues and extended narrative jazz compositions – have also been heard. However, the operatic stage with live characters offers a distinctly different canvas where some of the most uplifting stories of the escape from slavery have been told.

In this most recent one, Paul Moravec and Mark Campbell have come together as musician and librettist in Sanctuary Road, to recreate epic narratives of William Still’s book The Underground Railroad. This is a powerful work, layered with meaning, rich in detail, tragedy and triumph and, above all, cathartic pathos. All of this takes more than the stories themselves. It takes a fabulous cast, which Moravec and Campbell have found in the singers and musicians of the Oratorio Society of New York Chorus and Orchestra directed by Kent Tritle.

On Sanctuary Road Still’s narratives rise to a rarefied realm thanks to compelling performances by its soloists. Soprano Laquita Mitchell is radiant, mezzo-soprano Raehann Bryce-Davis is mesmerizing, and tenor Joshua Blue, baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather and bass-baritone Dashon Burton are spellbinding. Each of the soloists palpably evokes the suffering and joy of those who escaped to freedom from the American South into Canada.

01 Vivaldi Musica sacraVivaldi – Musica sacra per alto
Delphine Galou; Accademia Bizantina; Ottavio Dantone
Naïve Vivaldi Edition Vol.59
(vivaldiedition.com)

Unlike Bach and Handel, Vivaldi’s instrumental works continue to be better known and more frequently performed than his vocal and choral music, though this imbalance is slowly being rectified. History is partly to blame for this, as even the renowned Gloria was only reintroduced in 1939; but Vivaldi is now considered a versatile and highly innovative composer of vocal music, a reflection of his ambition to become a universal composer who excelled in every aspect of his art.

One significant contributor to the propagation of Vivaldi’s vocal music is the Vivaldi Edition, an ambitious project to record 450 of the Italian composer’s works, many of them unknown. Musica sacra per alto is volume 59 in their collection and features four sacred pieces for alto with orchestral accompaniment, ranging in size from small-scale mass segments lasting only a few minutes (such as the two introdutioni, which resemble solo motets in a form unique to Vivaldi) to the five-movement Salve Regina.

Contralto Delphine Galou and the Accademia Bizantina give convincing performances of each work on this disc, whether a languid aria or compelling allegro, uncovering the distinctly Vivaldian characteristics on the page and translating them into spectacular sounds. Although the material may be unfamiliar to many listeners, the style is unmistakable and this disc provides a fine example of why Vivaldi’s reputation as a composer of vocal music is continuing to grow, due in large part to the work of organizations such as the Vivaldi Edition.

02 Mozart EntfuhrungMozart – Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail
Soloists; Chorus and Orchestra of Teatro alla Scala; Zubin Mehta
Cmajor 752008 (naxos.com)

This production is a replica of a 1965 Salzburg performance designed by famous Italian director Giorgio Strehler which was so successful that the audience refused to leave the theatre. Since then it has been revived periodically and now again to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the director’s death. A young firebrand, Zubin Mehta, conducted then and now, at age 80, is conducting it again.

It certainly lives up to expectations: an impressive, monumental and symmetrical set bathed in sunlight suggests an atmosphere of dreaminess. The singers are lit alternately from the front and the back creating silhouettes as if we are watching a shadow play such as was fashionable in the Vienna of 1782 when this singspiel, Mozart’s first breakthrough success, was premiered. There is strong artistic control over all elements, e.g. costumes, colours, carefully choreographed movements and gesticulations, all coming together beautifully; the mark of a great director’s work.

The crowning achievement however is the singers and they all are of the highest quality. First and foremost, Dutch soprano Lenneke Ruiten, as Konstanze, is simply unbelievable in the three concert arias that follow one another and culminate in the magisterial, defiant and very difficult Martern aller Arten, sung with sustained, powerful high notes and without any trace of vibrato. This is a focal point of the opera, photographed from every possible angle, conductor’s included; it’s worth buying the video for this one aria alone. 

Swiss tenor Mauro Peter as Belmonte, her lover, is a revelation. He is referred to as a ”real discovery, a classic Mozartian tenor with warmth and style.” And there is Osmin, the basso profundo malevolent palace guard portrayed hilariously by Tobias Kehrer. An eye candy of a production.

03 Rossini RIcciardoRossini – Ricciardo e Zoraide
Soloists; Coro del Ventido Basso; Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Della Rai; Giacomo Sagripanti
Cmajor 752608 (naxosdirect.com)

The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, La Gazza Ladra – familiar Rossini titles, but La Gazzetta? Ermione? Bianca e Faliero? All these, along with Ricciardo e Zoraide, were among the 14 operas emerging from Rossini’s conveyor belt during his busiest four years, 1816-1819. Most were soon forgotten amid this superabundance; Ricciardo e Zoraide, here making its DVD debut, was unperformed for almost 150 years until its revival at the 1990 Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace. 

Agorante and Ircano are warring kings in medieval Nubia. Agorante lusts after his captive, Zoraide, Ircano’s daughter, who yearns for Ricciardo, her Christian-crusader lover. Disguised, Ricciardo attempts her rescue, but is captured. Zomira, Agorante’s jealous wife, plots the lovers’ downfall.

This 2018 Pesaro production boasts a fabulous international cast, headed by lustrous South African soprano Pretty Yende (Zoraide), phenomenal Peruvian high-C wizard, tenor Juan Diego Flórez (Ricciardo), sturdy Italian bass Nicola Ulivieri (Ircano) and two powerful, beefy voiced Russians, tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante) and mezzo Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira). There’s a major Toronto presence, too: Opera Atelier’s co-directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg are, respectively, the stage director and choreographer, their familiar predilections for mannered stage movements and bare-chested men further undermining the far-fetched scenario’s minimal dramatic verisimilitude.

I won’t call this opera a neglected masterpiece. However, conductor Giacomo Sagripanti and the truly spectacular singing provide plenty of Rossinian thrills over its nearly three-hour duration, making this a must-have for all opera-on-DVD enthusiasts.

04 Offenbach Un MariOffenbach – Un mari à la porte
Soloists; Orchestra del Maggio Musicale Florentino; Valerio Galli
Dynamic 37844 (naxos.com)

“Sheer silliness” were the words that kept coming to me as I watched and listened to this unfamiliar, 48-minute, one-act Offenbach operetta. Following the graceful, charming waltz-overture, Florestan (tenor Matteo Mezzaro) literally drops into Suzanne’s bedroom, falling through the chimney after scampering over rooftops to escape from a jealous husband. He hides when Suzanne (mezzo Francesca Benitez) and her friend Rosita (soprano Marina Ogii) enter, fresh from Suzanne’s wedding party. Rosita extols the delights of dancing the waltz in the operetta’s hit number, the effervescent Valse Tyrolienne.

Henri, the groom (baritone Patrizio La Placa), arrives at the bedroom door, only to find himself locked out – to avoid being discovered by Henri, Florestan, now out of hiding, has locked the door and thrown the key out the third-floor window. Stuck outside the bedroom, Henri adds his voice in an exuberant quartet, a sparkling example of Offenbach’s high-spirited “patter” music. Finally, after Henri manages to find the key in the garden, it all ends happily, with the newlyweds reunited and Florestan and Rosita potentially altar-bound themselves.

The exaggerated silliness of the plot is reflected in the exaggerated, silly costumes, makeup, props and gestures by the animated cast in this 2019 Florence production, while conductor Valerio Galli keeps it all bubbling along. My only cavil: adding another one-acter would have made this fun-filled but very short DVD even more desirable.

05 Weber FreischutzWeber – Der Freischütz
Soloists; MDR Leipzig Radio Choir; Frankfurt Radio Symphony; Marek Janowski
Pentatone PTC 5186 788
(pentatonemusic.com)

Since it was first performed in 1821, Der Freischütz has remained popular in Europe – especially in composer Carl Maria von Weber’s native Germany. The music is inspired, the plot suspenseful and the atmosphere evocatively romantic. Yet it is rarely performed in North America, though in Toronto both Opera Atelier and Opera in Concert have done worthy productions. 

Undoubtedly the long passages of dialogue present problems, especially on a recording. Often the dialogue gets trimmed down, removed altogether, sung using Berlioz’s added recitatives, or turned over to a narrator. 

On this recording, the dialogue has been totally reconceived by stage director Katharina Wagner and dramaturge Daniel Weber, and split up between two narrators. But, confusingly, both are pivotal characters in the opera, a Devil called Samiel, and a Hermit. So it is disconcerting to hear them (in the original German – a libretto with translations is included) give away key plot points, scold other characters, and do their best to disrupt things. 

In the opera, Samiel doesn’t sing, so it works seamlessly to cast this role as female. But Corinna Kirchhoff’s voice is too grating and unnuanced here to cause terror, especially in the nightmarish Wolf’s Glen scene. In the opera the Hermit is a selfless, wise holy man who shows up only at the end to save the day. But in this narration, he comes off as vindictive and pompous. 

In any case, Lise Davidsen, magnificent in the first act of Die Walküre with the Toronto Symphony last year, is powerfully radiant here. Andreas Schager, who made a thrilling Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s recent Götterdämmerung, is here just as ardent and versatile. The rest of the cast, the choir and orchestra are standouts, especially with the buoyant phrasing and clear textures shaped so expressively by conductor Marek Janowski.

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